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For Director Ryan White, the NASA Rover Doc ‘Good Night Oppy’ Is the Realization of a Childhood Dream

The director of "Good Night Oppy" tells IndieWire about how his love of space and space movies informed his new documentary.

Good Night Oppy director Ryan White

Ryan White and his fifth grade science project

Courtesy of Ryan White

Director Ryan White’s “Good Night Oppy” tells the story of Opportunity, the unexpectedly resilient NASA rover that stretched its scheduled 90 days on Mars into a 15-year mission. To tell the story of Opportunity’s groundbreaking journey and the bond between the robot and its human operators millions of miles away, White worked closely with NASA as well as visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic; together, they crafted a film comprised of both riveting archival footage and computer generated imagery depicting Oppy’s experiences in meticulous visual and aural detail.

For White, the project represented the fulfillment of his childhood dreams. “I was a total space nut,” he told IndieWire. “I spent my entire childhood wanting to be an astronaut.” Although White had been pitched space movies before, he never found a story worth pursuing until Peter Berg’s Film 45 and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment approached him with the Opportunity project. The director felt that this particular subject could yield a documentary version of the type of Spielberg classic he had grown up with, a movie that, like “E.T.,” could be heartwarming, exciting, and of equal appeal to both kids and their parents.

White and his producing partner Jessica Hargrave were immediately interested in the project, but the day after their dinner with Film 45 and Amblin their work — like everyone else’s — hit a road block. “We got emails telling us not to leave our homes,” White said, recalling the morning the COVID-19 shutdown began. Luckily, the methodology White planned on was easily adaptable to the Zoom era. “We always do a pre-interviewing process for almost all of our films, so the first stage was pre-interviewing almost four dozen people, the human beings who played a part in the robots’ lives.” The pre-interviews revealed how invested the scientists were in their work and how closely they felt connected to Oppy, confirming that the documentary would have the emotional core White wanted.

Listen to the entire discussion below. To hear this and more conversations with your favorite TV and film creators, subscribe to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.

While the interviews and archival footage make up half of the movie, the other half needed to be built from scratch: the material depicting Oppy’s actual adventures on Mars. Working with ILM to create a computer generated Mars was an exciting pleasure for White, but it also required that he modify his usual approach. “Normally I’m running off to some foreign country and shooting a ton, and then I come back and I drop the footage in my edit room and I say, ‘There’s a hundred hours of footage. Let’s get going.'” This one didn’t have that luxury because of Industrial Light & Magic. It was going to take them over a year to make these visual effects. So they said, ‘We need your vision now. We have to create the 3D models of the robots. We have to create the terrain of Mars.'”

Based on the pre-interviews, White was able to write a script and give ILM a road map, taking advantage of resources from NASA like a daily journal for the rovers that served as the basis for the film’s narration, spoken by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s voice was part of an incredibly sophisticated audio mix conceived by Academy Award-winning sound designer Mark Mangini. The re-recording mixer behind “Dune” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” is known for building soundscapes for epic fantasy worlds, but White pointed out that all of his work is steeped in the natural world. “Those aren’t synthetic sounds,” White said. “Mark is like an ethnographer, he’s like an anthropologist out there recording everything so he can use real sounds.” The result is a documentary that contains White’s usual rigor for authenticity with sci-fi elements to yield a philosophically rich and deeply satisfying emotional experience — a movie that not only invites but earns comparison with his beloved “E.T.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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